Does Anybody Understand Debt?

Does anybody understand debt?  Some – but not many.  Today’s post is less of my normal extended prose and more of an outline.  I’ve been invited to speak at some writing classes here at the college and this is intended to serve as my speaking notes.


Background: What have you heard?

Krugman in New York Times

Harvey in Forbes

Background Info on U.S. National Debt

Brazelton:  The US CANNOT Go Broke


Numbers, Metaphors, and Stories


Get the terms right

Debt, Deficit, and tr/b/m-illions

$1,000,000,000,000

$1,000,000,000

$1,000,000

$1 trillion =  1 million times $1 million

Debt


Deficit

1984-present U.S. Federal Budget


Measuring the Debt

Counting Absolute Dollars of Debt Deceives. It's All Relative.


Three Bad Metaphors


Government is NOT a Household

Government is NOT like a Household!

Econproph: Once Again, Government is Not Like  a Household


 Govt Debt is NOT a Burden on future generations


Private Debt is NOT like Government Debt

Federal Reserve Breakdown of Household Debt

Foreigners Don’t Control


So…

A Sovereign Government Cannot “Go Broke”


Eurozone Countries Can “Go Broke”


Government Debt is Like Money that Pays Interest


But What About Inflation?  Printing money?

Inflation involves real demand vs. real supply, not just $


Test on Debt:  Interest Rates

Rates are historically low and staying low.


Are Gov. Deficits Necessary?

Yes, if you want to save money.

Forever?   Yes.

Econproph: But What About National Debt-to-GDP Ratio? Not a Problem, Really


Are There Limits to Deficits?

Yes, but related to full employment and capacity.


In Practice, Nobody Understands Money.

Well they understand yesterday’s money, not modern money.

That’s why they don’t understand debt.

Why I Went Dark and Why It Matters

As those readers who visited this blog earlier today on Jan 18 know, I took this site “dark” in solidarity with the anti-SOPA/anti-PIPA protests. Yes, I’m back now. But I’m angry. And you should be angry too.

I’m angry because the SOPA/PIPA bills in Congress are nothing more attempts by a privileged few large corporations who want to reap even greater profits at everybody else’s expense.  Rather than engage in the difficult and creative work of creating products and services that people want at prices that people want to pay, these corporations want to sit back and earn monopoly profits using monopolies granted by Congress. They make a big deal of the supposed “losses” to “piracy”.  But their numbers are totally bogus. Their numbers for losses are based on an assumption that demand curves for music, entertainment, movies, etc don’t slope downward.   I’ll comment on that and explain it more in a future post.  These publishers don’t even want to be bothered to engage in protecting their interests themselves.  A major portion of the SOPA/PIPA bills involve clauses that would require other people, y0u and me, to do the enforcement that has historically always been the responsibility of the copyright owner.  If these corporations/publishers don’t think you or I or Google or whoever is adequately protecting their profits, then they want the power to shut us down summarily without having to even prove anything in court.

I’m angry because if SOPA/PIPA succeed, even if in an altered form, I will at a minimum have to stop accepting comments on this blog.  I’ll have to live the likelihood that should I write anything to which one of these corporations takes offense, then they can and very likely will be able to shut down this site permanently.  No recourse in court. They won’t even have to prove they own any copyright they allege is infringed. Most likely I will have change my teaching also. My online teaching may become untenable.  It’s not because I infringe on anybody’s copyrights.  It’s because these powers in SOPA/PIPA will be abused.

I’m angry because the major publishers of textbooks (McGraw-Hill, Cengage, Pearson, Macmillan, some others) have all publicly supported these bills. They’ve funded the lobbying that created these anti-free speech bills.  Why? Because they want a monopoly on the distribution of knowledge in higher education.  These two bills would grant the power to these publishers to shut down open education resources, shut down professors that want to share material the professors have written, and shut down any collaborative learning site if they take offense to it.  The result will be higher costs for students, less knowledge shared, and less learning. But it will mean these same publishers will be able to continue to make profits without having to adapt to new technology or having to actually improve their products or re-invent their business models.

I’m angry because in the subject I teach, I regularly get sales reps from these big publishers pushing “solutions” (read textbooks w/ software that mean the book can’t be resold) that cost easily $200 or more.  That’s almost as much as the tuition for the course itself.  A couple of these big publishers have even adopted a page from the pharmaceutical industry.  I’ve been offered (and refused) all-expense paid trips to 5-star resort hotels in Texas, South Carolina, and California for “conferences” on teaching – just like doctors who get bribed into prescribing expensive medicines the patient doesn’t need (happened to me 10 years ago).  these SOPA/PIPA bills are just an attempt to perpetuate the same corrupt ways of doing business.  In economics, we have a term for it. It’s called rent-seeking.  It’s the opposite of doing productive activity.  I have now instituted a policy of refusing to talk with these reps.  From henceforth, reps from any firm who publicly supports SOPA/PIPA is not welcome in my office.  I will not spec any book for any class from them. I call on all other professors in higher education to do so also.  We either stand on the side of learning, sharing knowledge, and or students, or we stand with monopolists interested only in profits and closing minds.

I’m angry because the politicians, mostly Republicans, who claim to be all about stopping “job-killing regulations” are supporting and co-sponsoring these bills in large numbers.  Yet these two bills, SOPA/PIPA are draconian measures to regulate the Internet, the World Wide Web, and public communications and these two bills will kill jobs.  By the tens of thousands in the technology industry.  Jobs that the entertainment industry won’t replace.

I’m angry because freedom of speech, the freedom to converse, share ideas, to learn, to innovate, will end under these two bills.  If these bills become law, then make mistake, you and I will only be free to speak so long as some unnamed, unseen corporation decides to tolerate what we say.  The firms than enable us to talk without being face-to-face, the Googles, the Wikipedias, the Facebooks, the WordPresses, etc, will have inspect and limit what we say lest they find themselves banned and their funds cut off.  That’s not what the U.S. was supposed to be about.

I affirm they stand with the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, whose words are inscribed on the dome of his memorial in Washington, D.C.:

“…I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” – Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800

 

Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory – A Lesson in Comparative Economic Systems

One of the core lessons that I try to get across in my introductory Comparative Economic Systems classes is that economic systems are complex. Reality is much more complex than either simple theory or ideology.  Countries simply cannot be easily categorized with simple labels such as capitalist, socialist, or communist.  Those labels usually obscure more than they illuminate.

The labels are the work of ideologues and theorists.  Pure capitalism or socialism or communism exists only in the mathematical axioms of textbooks, the novels of Ayn Rand, or the writings of some political power grabber. Real economic systems are the creatures of politics, history, the available resources, culture, religion, and some economic theory.

Another lesson I try to impart is that while we might all want to improve economic conditions, how to do that effectively is also complex.  There are no silver bullets or universal magic solutions.  There are costs and benefits to any proposed policy or practice.  The key to progress is evaluating those costs and benefits wisely and making conscious decisions.

Last weekend I heard  a story on the This American Life radio.  It was called Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.  It’s about a man who goes to visit the workers at Foxconn, the company that manufacturers Apple products in China.  It’s a long story, but it’s gripping and powerful.  It struck me that it also powerfully illustrates the two lessons I’m trying to teach in class:  economic systems aren’t that simple and making things better isn’t always obvious.

To listen for yourself, go to: This American Life #454 – Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. Here’s their summary:

Host Ira Glass speaks with an Apple device about its origin. (2 minutes)

Mike Daisey performs an excerpt that was adapted for radio from his one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” A lifelong Apple superfan, Daisey sees some photos online from the inside of a factory that makes iPhones, starts to wonder about the people working there, and flies to China to meet them. His show restarts a run at New York’s Public Theater later this month. (39 minutes)

What should we make of what Mike Daisey saw in China? Our staff did weeks of fact checking to corroborate Daisey’s findings. Ira talks with Ian Spaulding, founder and managing director of INFACT Global Partners, which goes into Chinese factories and helps them meet social responsibility standards set by Western companies (Apple’s Supplier Responsibility page is here), and with Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times who has reported in Asian factories. In the podcast and streaming versions of the program he also speaks with Debby Chan Sze Wan, a project manager at the advocacy group SACOM, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, based in Hong Kong. They’ve put out three reports investigating conditions at Foxconn (October 2010, May 2011, Sept 2011). Each report surveyed over 100 Foxconn workers, and they even had a researcher go undercover and take a job at the Shenzhen plant. (15 minutes)

 

 

The Problem in One Graph

Yesterday I said I was reluctant to get over-optimistic about the recent slight upturn in employment data. This year may truly be different from the last few, but there’s a nagging feeling that we’ve seen this movie before. I’m not alone in the feeling. As 2012 dawns, Tim Duy summarizes the problem in one graph (emphasis is mine):

I have been hesitant to embrace the recent positive data flow – once bitten, twice shy perhaps.  Something about the current dynamics that seems a little too familiar.  Indeed, I felt something of relief when FT Alphaville came to a similar conclusion in the waning days of 2011.  Cardiff Garcia reports on a Nomura research note that details a new bias in the seasonal adjustment process, noting:

Up next, writes Nomura, you can expect exaggeratedly strong readings from the Chicago PMI later this month and the next ISM manufacturing survey at the start of January.

I imagine it is premature to call the readings “exaggerated,” but both did surprise on the upside, as much data has of late.  Read the whole piece – it is worth the time.

Indeed, flirtations with either excessive optimism or excessive pessimism were not richly rewarded last year, as on average the economy simply edged upward in pretty unremarkable fashion:

Potential
It seems reasonable to expect the same in 2012, at least as a baseline – a slow “recovery” that is really more of an adjustment to what appears to be the economy’s new equilibrium path, one that is decisively subpar to the pre-recession trend.  I don’t believe that such an adjustment is necessary, as in my view it simply reflects a shortfall of aggregate demand.  That said, the longer the cyclical downturn grinds on, the more likely it is that we will indeed see a new equilibrium path.  A greater percentage of the cyclical unemployment will become structural unemployment or permanent shifts in the labor force participation rate.  In addition, investments will go unmade as firms hoard cash.  And, increasingly, policymakers will manage policy along the new equilibrium path, forgetting entirely the pre-recession path.

The gap in the above graph, the gap between the green trend line of what we’re capable of doing and the blue-red trend from Jan 2009 onward of we’re actually doing is the challenge.  We are slowly becoming an economy that simply cut-off 7% or so of our economy in 2008 and we aren’t recovering it.  Instead it increasingly appears that the 90-93% of the economy that survived, those of us still with good jobs, are simply going on our way leaving behind those who lost out a few years ago.

There are over 13 million unemployed workers. Over 5.6 million of them have been searching fruitlessly for a new job for more than 6 months.  These are the people who got kicked off the American economy bus some time ago.  Unfortunately, even at the recently improved rate of 150-200,000 new jobs per month, there won’t be any room on the bus for them again.  Instead, the bus is moving on and they are left behind.

This is new. This is not the normal pattern. In past recessions, public policy, both fiscal and monetary, was managed to restore full employment rapidly after a recession.  It didn’t always succeed but the effort was made.  Now it is not. Now we focus more on long-term debt issues and spending concerns.  Politicians run on platforms of fear of some future default or financial crisis. This despite the fact that the government is able to borrow at record low rates of interest.

We are on path to a “new normal”, a “normal” that says it’s OK to have millions of long-term unemployed who have no hope.  I don’t think I like the “new normal”.

 

Setting the Bar Very Low: The Unemployment Report for December 2011

Well I’m back.  Yes, it’s been a longer than expected break from blogging driven by work considerations, but contrary to the rumors, I have not been “doomed”.  So it’s on to a new semester and a new resolution to post frequently. I hope 3-5 times per week.

To start things off, yesterday was the first Friday of the month which means, of course, the monthly report on employment, jobs, and the unemployment rate.  I’ll let Calculated Risk report the news and graph first:

December Employment Report: 200,000 Jobs, 8.5% Unemployment Rate

There were 200,000 payroll jobs added in December. This included 212,000 private sector jobs added, and 12,000 government jobs lost.

The following graph shows the employment population ratio, the participation rate, and the unemployment rate.

Employment Pop Ratio, participation and unemployment ratesClick on graph for larger image.

The unemployment rate declined to 8.5% (red line).

The Labor Force Participation Rate was unchanged 64.0% in December (blue line). This is the percentage of the working age population in the labor force.

The Employment-Population ratio was unchanged at 58.5% in December (black line).

The good news then is that trend indicates we are creating net more jobs in the last few months than we have been doing for several years.  An unemployment rate of 8.5% is definitely a lot better than the 10% we had in 2009. And, the rate is coming down.  But we shouldn’t get too excited nor should politicians think  their work is done.  First off, although this is the strongest 3 month improvement in the rate we’ve seen since the start of the recession back in 2007, we have seen similar short trends of improvement that fizzle out. It’s always possible as some analysts have observed that the November-December numbers were driven by a surge in temporary hiring in the online retailing sector.  It’s possible that we’re only seeing  a temporary strengthening and that January and February will see a return to same stagnation we saw last summer.

Second, it’s always possible that Congress will do something incredibly stupid that dramatically cuts employment and aggregate demand immediately. A third, very serious risk is that Europe will continue to slide into government austerity-induced recession and possibly trigger a global financial crisis with the Euro.  A European slide will adversely affect our exports and depending on how severe it is, possibly reduce employment in U.S. exporting industries.  A Euro financial crisis would likely ripple back to big U.S. banks who could in turn cause problems here.

But the biggest reason that we shouldn’t be satisfied with these numbers is simple. This isn’t enough! An improvement of 200,000 net new jobs might be acceptable if we were already at full employment, but we’re not. We need to grow faster so we can put the millions of unemployed back to work.  Again back to Calculated Risk:

Percent Job Losses During RecessionsThis graph shows the job losses from the start of the employment recession, in percentage terms aligned at maximum job losses.

This is the worst post WWII employment recession. However, as bad as this is, the Great Depression would be way off the chart. At the worst, employment fell a little over 6% during the recent employment recession – although the data is a little uncertain – employment probably fell by around 22% during the Great Depression.

Calculated Risk makes the point that the past few years haven’t been as severe as the Great Depression.  That’s true in the sense of how deep or severe the crisis has been.  But in terms of length, how long we go without full employment, we are clearly on a path to making this on par with the Great Depression.  The Great Depression in employment was essentially 11 years long.  Unemployment started rising in late 1929. It never fully recovered until the war spending took off in a big way in 1940-41. That’s eleven years. The current recession/depression/inadequate recovery started in late 2007. It’s at least 4 years old already.  The current pace of jobs addition puts us another 3 or so years until we recover all the jobs we lost.   So that’s a total of 7 plus years.

But as Paul Krugman points out, the population and labor force has been growing during the last 4 years.  To really reach full employment we need even more.

Let me give two back-of-the-envelope ways to think about how inadequate 200,000 jobs a month is.

First, note that there are still about 6 million fewer jobs than there were at the end of 2007 — and that we would normally have expected to have added around 5 million jobs over a four-year period. So we’re 11 million jobs down — and we need at least 100,000 jobs a month just to keep up with working-age population growth. Do the math, and you’ll see that it would take 9 or 10 years of growth at this rate to restore full employment.

Alternatively, note that during the Clinton years — all 8 of them — the economy added around 230,000 jobs a month. As it did that, the unemployment rate fell about 3 1/2 percentage points — which is about what we’d need from here to get back to something that felt like full employment. Again, this suggests that we’re looking at something like a decade-long haul to have full recovery.

So yes, this is better news than we’ve been having. But it’s still vastly inadequate.

So, yes I’m encouraged by the recent employment reports, but not very much.  I still hold to my position that when all is done and we look back on this period we’ll be referring to it as some sort of depression, not a “Great” one, but some sort of depression.